[22 April 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Most bands have a document to commemorate their first year or their initial start: it’s called a debut album. It comes in many forms, but it is one collection of songs, a starting point. For Columbus, Ohio’s Connections, Year One is not a debut but rather a look back at a productive year or so of music. It collects two full-length albums—late 2012’s Private Airplane and 2013’s Body Language—and the Tough City EP, originally released for last year’s Record Store Day. The 32-song set serves as a reminder of just how much great music this band put out in so little time, and it also gives people a second chance to catch on for the first time.
That Connections could crank out so many fuzzy power-pop gems so quickly shouldn’t surprise too much, considering the players’ pedigrees. Kevin Elliott and Andy Hampel’s first band, 84 Nash, was the first non-Guided By Voices-related band to release an album on Rockathon Records, while Adam Elliott was the drummer/singer for Times New Viking. Together, with Dave Capaldi, the band meshes noise with catchy hooks to make a brash, thorny type of rock music, one with as much pop ambition as it has oddball energy.
Private Airplane is a frantic first blast from the band, running through 15 songs in roughly a half an hour. It’s a cross-section of power-pop stylings, from the quick-strike breakdowns of opener “Always” to the rippling, moodier guitars of “On Your Mind” to the classic-sounding chorus of “Miller’s Grove”. And that’s just the first three songs. For 12 more tracks, the band rips through jagged chords and crashing drums (“Mall Lights”), bittersweet yet buzzing melodies (“Totally Carpooled”) and mixes of brilliant hooks and musical nostalgia (“1980 Called”). The band can both brood and sneer, and neither feel stand-offish. Maybe the best tension at the heart of Private Airplane is between Kevin Elliott’s voice and the band’s muscle. The music here is fuzzy but rarely contained, stretching out in every direction like barbed vines. In the middle of it all, Elliott’s keening voice fights for ground, fights to be heard, but never tips into full on stridency. Instead, he conveys a yearning at the heart of these fiery rock songs. Connections isn’t about angry young men, it’s about dealing with the place you call home, about dealing with the people around you, about dealing with the reality that maybe we never really feel all the way grown-up. It’s confusion and it’s complexity, and Elliott’s delivery doesn’t contrast the music so much as highlight the subtle rabbit holes the tones, tempos, and textures of this album run down.
Tough City acts as a smoldering hinge between records. There’s a finer edge to these songs, one that cuts quicker and with perhaps a less expansive goal. There’s a taut razorwire tension to the hooks on the title track, a catchier version of something Sonic Youth would needlessly bury in feedback. All the songs on the EP charge forward with a clear-eyed purpose that shakes off the overcast sky looming on the horizon of Private Airplane. “Cul-de-Sac” comes the closest to that album’s mood, but speeds it up and thins it out on angular hooks and a killer chorus. It’s a step forward for the band, but also another angle to their sound entirely. It doesn’t ignore the album before it so much as add a contained and fascinating variation on its theme.
And maybe it’s the focus and charge of that EP that led to Body Language. This album, the band’s finest of these recordings, is a more intricate yet more focused album than Private Airplane, taking all that album’s barbs and honing them into blades so sharp they can’t sting. The opening bassline to “Aimless” lays the ground for slicing guitars and Elliott’s careful, pulled-on vocals. But as the song rushes forward, it’s when that speed breaks down at the end of the verse and Elliott belting out his lines before shouting “Go!”, a command the band follows for another dozen tracks. There’s still variety here, from the gauzy worn-out feel of “Blurry Eyes” to the bittersweet jangle-pop of “Jeni & Johnny” to the hard-hitting chug of “Summer Creeps” and garage-rock fury of “2 Makes 2”. The album slows down a bit more than Private Airplane but overall feels somehow more propulsive. It’s a culmination of the variety of the first album and the in-the-moment blare of the EP. But it’s also its own thing, a heartfelt, often aching, album about where youthful energy can no longer sustain the parties and messes that youth makes. And yet the album, and the band, press on.
This pressing on is a key feeling on Year One. Yes, it’s looking back, but that it doesn’t feel like one 32-song unit is important. You can sense the difference when you move from Private Airplane closer “Love St.” to the title track of Tough City. These three documents standout even when sequenced together. And as the drums on “Florida, Vegas, Tahoe” die out, you feel ready for the next thing—the next shift in Connections’ sound. Year One is a celebration of what has been, but it’s also a preamble to what seems like an awfully bright future.